Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Adrenaline Shot: ACTION U.S.A. (1989) and CARTEL (1990)

Since the birth of the film industry, it has always made sense for people who did stunts to become film directors.  In a medium built on conveying movement, it is perfect. Silent stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin showed they knew best when it came to filming their own knuckle whitening stunts.  In the 1970s and 80s, stuntman Hal Needham reigned supreme at the box office with his car crazy flicks like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) and THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981); Jackie Chan took his career to new heights when he decided he needed to be the one calling the shots on his death defying stunts; and even Vic Armstrong parlayed a career of stunts and second unit direction into the classic Dolph Lundgren feature ARMY OF ONE (1993).  The point being: if a stuntman gets his bruised tailbone in the director’s chair, you can expect lots of action (hey, don’t you dare bring up Spiro Razatos’ feature CLASS OF 1999 II: THE SUBSTITUTE [1994]). Nowhere is this more on display than in these couple of features from stuntman John Stewart.  A veteran actor and stunt coordinator, Stewart made the transition to directing in the late 1980s and made sure to make the most of it when it came to capturing his brethren doing extreme bits.

ACTION U.S.A. (1989)

John Stewart’s debut feature as a director came out on VHS via the Imperial Entertainment label.  This meant that two things were for certain.  One, the film was going to have a lot of action.  Two, you are going to sit through the trailer for BLACK EAGLE (1988) again whether you like it or not.

This film wastes no time getting into the mix and delivering on its titular promise as the opening has drug dealer Billy Ray (Rod Shaft, if that is your real name) and his girlfriend Carmen (Barri Murphy) speeding around a Texas town in a souped up Corvette with a personalized license plate that reads SLEEK 1.  They get to his house and start making out, but this afternoon quickie is interrupted by a couple of thugs who kidnap them both.  This results in a 20 minute action sequence that involves a car chase, a car and helicopter chase, a helicopter freefall and another car chase that results in a mobile home exploding in a huge fireball.  Yeah, I think I’m going to like this movie.  Anyway, since Carmen was a witness to all of this, she is placed under the care of FBI agents Osborn (Gregory Scott Cummings, recently seen as the bad guy in PHANTOM OF THE MALL) and McKinnon (William Hubbard Knight).  Their boss, Conover (William Smith), orders them to keep her safe while he builds a case on Frankie Navarro (Cameron Mitchell), the mobster behind all of this mayhem who is looking for a stash of diamonds.  Seems like a pretty routine job for our Fed boys, except that Navarro has hired hitman Drago (Ross Hagen), who has the unfortunate and uncanny ability to show up wherever our heroic trio ends up.

If there is ever a film that lives up to its title, it is this one. There is lots of action and it is filmed in the U.S.A. (the title on the clapper shown in the end credit bloopers is A HANDFUL OF TROUBLE). I mean, the VHS cover has a guy falling out a window, a guy on fire, and a flying car smashing into some parked cars.  Can you see what drew me to it?  Director Stewart can't go ten minutes without staging some crazy action scene. It is weird though as his film unfolds almost in reverse as the biggest action scenes take place in the opening twenty minutes. Not that the film's finale is a let down, it just doesn't have the huge explosions and insane car jumps that the film’s opening display.  Having been a stuntman, Stewart knows exactly where to place the camera in order to the maximum impact (pun most definitely intended) on a car slamming into the pavement.  No CGI cars and explosions a la FAST AND FURIOUS that drive the kidz wild nowadays (how anyone can get excited during a CGI car chase is beyond me).  There are even a few scary bits (like where Carmen’s character is flung out of a car during a chase and hangs onto the ajar door) which remind you that back in the day stunt folks were some crazy people.

Is that your raised motorblock 
or are you just happy to see me?

"Yep, they're real."
The entire cast is good although it is strange for me to see Cummings cast as a good guy. He and Murphy’s character naturally fall for each other, but the real relationship is the rapport between him and his partner played by Knight.  It is stock 80s action cliché (Cummings is white, Knight is black) but it works and they are obviously having fun in their roles. The highlight is a 48 HRS (1982) type sequence where they end up in a redneck bar and all hell breaks loose.  The supporting cast is also a dream for any exploitation cinephile as you get Cameron Mitchell (whose scenes were shot away from everyone else), William Smith, and Ross Hagen listed in the opening credits back-to-back.  I think I about died when I saw those names pop up.  Had they somehow worked in Aldo Ray, no doubt you wouldn’t be reading this review as I would have been found dead of b-movie player overdose.  All in all, ACTION U.S.A. is a perfect example of an era that has long since left us – a movie that serves as a vehicle for a bunch of insane stuntmen to show their wares.

CARTEL (1990)

Just a year later saw the release of Stewart’s second action film with the direct-to-video CARTEL (his third film as a director after co-directing CLICK: THE CALENDAR GIRL KILLER [1990] with his ACTION star Ross Hagen).

The film opens with freelance airplane pilot Chuck Taylor (Miles O’Keeffe, of ATOR fame) touching down in California with what he believes to be a cargo of medical supplies for delivery.  The Federal agents who greet him, however, have bad news as he was carrying boxes full of cocaine.  Also at the airport are the men of Tony King (Don Stroud), the head honcho in this drug ring who wants to make sure he gets his shipment.  While Taylor is being arrested, King’s men roll up guns-a-blazin’ to procure their product.  Naturally, just like ACTION U.S.A., this erupts into a huge action scene where Taylor takes off in a plane with goons hanging on both sides and King puts the pedal to the metal in his Lamborghini as the cops give chase.  The events end poorly for the good and the bad as Taylor is arrested (“Whoa! What are you doing, man?”) and King and his car are launched 100 feet into the air in a huge fireball before he crashes and is then arrested.

Not surprisingly, both men end up in the slammer (a prison that shows ACTION U.S.A. on its television…hell yeah!).  As cinematic laws dictate, they are both on the same cellblock and King, who shows now visible damage from his fiery fiasco, rubs Taylor the wrong way by openly snorting coke and picking on other prisoners.  Their tempers flare and this quickly escalates into a…uh…arm wrestling match!  Yes, when you see someone unmercifully beating up your fellow prisoners, the only way to set them straight is to slam their appendage onto a table.  Anyway, Taylor shows King who is boss and beats him handily (haha).  This only fuels the bad guy’s vengeful mood more.  You see, he is still upset over all that coke he lost and tells Taylor he can work off his “debt” by working for him for a year.  Taylor passes, which is a bad move as King sends his henchmen (including ACTION’s lead Cummings) on the outside to kill Taylor’s girlfriend Donna (Crystal Carson), his sister Nancy (Suzee Slater) and her son Tommy (Bradley Pierce) in order to persuade him.  When they succeed in killing Nancy, Taylor decides it is time to bust out of this joint.  With Nancy’s investigative help, he learns the routines of the drug runners and decides to get revenge on those who framed him.  The bad news?  King has also escaped from prison and is looking for some payback as well.

Frankie Sweatpants always wondered why 
the other assassins never took him seriously:

CARTEL sees director Stewart working with a bigger budget and, as we all know, bigger means better.  Actually, that might not be the case here.  In contrast to the aforementioned ACTION U.S.A., CARTEL is surprisingly restrained.  Not that this is a bad thing, it is just that the action is more even spaced out over the picture and Stewart spends more time developing the drama between the characters.  Like ACTION, it seems to also be working in reverse as the opening action scene is definitely the highlight of the film and makes the finale (which takes place at a boatyard) pale in comparison.  There are some great little bits in here though that shows off that the stunt crew still needs their required adrenaline rushes.  For example, when the thugs show up at the house to terrorize Taylor’s family, they don’t just come in the door.  They drive a station wagon right into the house.  Even one guy attacking Nancy can’t be done simply as he has to attack her by jumping into the room through a glass window.

Stroud in one of his quieter moments
The cast is again good and O’Keefe proves again to be a solid leading man.  He does do this one thing with his voice every now and then that makes him sound like Elvis though.  The supporting players aren’t as diverse this go around, although that was probably due to safety matters of being on set with Don Stroud.  As we’ve come to expect from cinema’s wild man, Stroud gives a totally unhinged and manic performance to the point that I wonder if the coke he was snorting was real.  I bet the carpenters and set dressers were pissed when they showed up for work the next day and were all like, “Who has been chewing on the scenery?”  There is a bit of disappointment with the William Smith casting though as he is only in a few scenes and his crooked guard character never gets his comeuppance.  However, you can tell the filmmakers were once again having fun while making stuff get blow’d up real nice.  When looking for action, what more can you ask for?

Nancy's modeling career was really taking off!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D (2011)

It's not just obsessive and compulsive movie watchers like us here at VJ that become jaded, the movie viewing public does. We all operate on expectations and make evaluations of films based on those expectations, no matter how hard some of us try, it still happens. So what exactly do you expect from a DTV movie with the title NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D? Nothing good, that's for sure. For me, I expect something low-budget, badly acted, indifferently directed, with lots of very cheap CG gore and even cheaper jokes because nothing with that title could possibly take itself seriously. I mean, come on. Trying to rip off two horror classics and throw "3D" in on top of it just reeks of DTV desperation.

Set almost entirely in a run-down mortuary, head mortician, Gerald Tovar, or as his name tag says "Junior" (Andrew Divoff), lives in his dead father's shadow. He is troubled and on edge getting into conflicts with his apathetic staff, goth-girl DyeAnne (Robin Sydney) and stoner/slacker Russell (Adam Chambers). The only person he maintains a good relationship with is the obese bookkeeper/receptionist Aunt Lou (Melissa Jo Bailey) who spends most of her time watching FIXD News, a right-wing cable station. We quickly find out that the root of Gerald's problems are deeper than his problems with poor staffing and inner demons. For some reason his crematorium is kept locked and is filled with rotting corpses, flies and a video camera that Gerald leaves running. During an unscheduled inspection, what is clearly a member of the walking dead shambles through the graveyard and attacks the inspector. Gerald is at least well mannered as he apologizes for killing the inspector with a shovel after dispatching the undead.

After bringing on a new assistant Cristie (Sarah Lieving), Geralds issues are compounded by having his half-brother Harold (Jeffrey Combs) show up out of the blue. Harold has lost his veterinary business and is a little bitter about his brother getting the bulk of daddy's estate. As it turns out, Dad had a deal going with the US military: they would truck over strange bags from a nearby base which he would burn in his retort. Unfortunately, since Daddy died, Gerald has found himself with a deep and intense phobia of fire and has let the bags and the corpses stack up.

If you are thinking "holy crap, that is a lot of plot!", you aren't alone. It actually took me a good 20 minutes of the running time to mentally switch gears from the expected low-brow NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR rip-off that I expected it to be, to the low-key, deliberately paced, character-driven movie that it actually is. Writer-producer-director Jeff Broadstreet seems to have garnered himself quite a reputation for making very low-budget movies that are not well received by critics, fans or really anybody. I never even considered checking out one of his movies until this one came along and the only reason I decided to watch it was because I wanted to see if a low-budget indy flick would fuck up 3D just as much as Hollywood's "big" movies (the answer, obviously, is no - nobody fucks up great ideas like Hollywood). I thought it would make a fun bit of blogfodder, an easy target for some of my own cheap jokes. Instead I got something that took me completely off guard and took some effort to readjust to. A slowly unfolding character piece in which the "Living Dead" and "Re-Animation" is left in the background, as sanity-eroding forces that eat away at the main characters.

Gerald is a snarling ball of neuroses, but generally seems like a good guy. Harold is very confident and assertive, particularly in his right wing beliefs and hatred of diet sodas. At least that's what you might think at first. As the film progresses and more dirt is dug up, the viewers perception of the characters will change and evolve. The movie is essentially a character piece with Divoff and Combs giving exceptionally solid performances with a sincerity that surpasses many Oscar nominees. While mostly it is the two brothers exploring each other's characters, trying to pry out dirty secrets, the employees in the embalming room are trying to simply get along. Cristie is college-educated and professional, but finally gives in to the lure of the slacker mentality when Russell swings by with da kine and everyone decides that it's time for a smoke break. Broadstreet could have used this sequence as an opportunity for sophomoric laughs (or lack there of), but instead tries to get into a surreal space. DyeAnne shows an intense interest in the dead ("you mean, like for sex?" says Cristie), but it doesn't really go anywhere and her character doesn't even have a satisfying conclusion. It felt like they were cribbing a riff from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD's Trash, but without even trying to match the energy or envelope pushing of that classic character. Matter of fact, if anything, this movie feels far more like a quasi-sequel to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD rather than a quasi-sequel to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: RE-ANIMATION 3D is a semi-prequel to Broadstreet's  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D, a quasi-remake that wasn't well received in the least. While this outing is far and away better than it has any right to be, it still doesn't deliver in what is a vital area: the raison d'etre, the living dead. There are a few cool scenes (the fridge in Daddy's office), but for the most part the horror factor is somewhat underplayed and the effects, both physical and CG are rough around the edges at best. Even worse, a few ideas are set up, including the ultimate fates of most of the cast, and are fumbled out-right. One of the major missteps is the inclusion of a character that parodies Sarah Palin, who is seen on TV and for no explained reason simply shows up at the mortuary near the end of the film. It's completely out of left field  we get no real payoff with her character (spoiler alert - she dies, but that's about it) and even at the time this was made in late 2011, everyone had skewered Palin so often, that she was like Pam Anderson at a butt-rock re-union tour, even the late-night comics were starting to look for fresher material. Hell, Hustler's NAILIN' PALIN porn parody came out in 2008, a full three years earlier! This is what I will henceforth refer to as "The IRON SKY Syndrome".

Shot in stereoscopic 3D on digital video, the 3D really isn't necessary to the film, but does highlight the craftsmanship that went into the set dressing. While it was shot on a TV soundstage in Burbank, you'd never know it as the sets are highly detailed and have a fantastic, cluttered, lived-in (or maybe "died-in") look about them. It's also interesting to note that while Hollywood makes hundreds of millions of dollars on a film like IRON MAN 3, they can't be bothered to actually spend the money on shooting in 3D, instead relying on a computer to make a 2D movie that must be watched with 3D glasses and still look 2D. Here, even a simple shot of the graveyard looks great with each headstone occupying its own place in a three dimensional field. There's a scene early on where a candle is blown out and the smoke beautifully wafts off of the screen. Is it intrinsic to a story about two brothers with deep, dark personal issues? Not in the least, but it's still a better 3D experience than Marvel, Paramount, Columbia, or Universal are willing to give us, which is simply shameful.

In spite of the stumbles, the movie is an unqualified success with its main characters. Feeling somewhat like a stage play based on a Joe R. Landsdale short story, this is Broadstreet's first attempt at writing a screenplay. Granted there are plenty of areas where this is very apparent, but by the same token he wrote some great material that gave Divoff and Combs meaty roles that they could sink their teeth into. You can see the gears turning in each of the actor's heads when they are slowly revealing their motives and trying to figure out how to work the situation to their advantage. These guys didn't phone this movie in, they are invested in their parts. Divoff, bearing a producer's credit, apparently invested in a fiscal sense as well, but that's even better as he clearly isn't there for an easy paycheck.

So, yes, the movie doesn't payoff on expectations, but at the same time, I never felt like walking away from it either. There's enough going on to keep your interest and find out if Gerald and Harold will actually solve their problems or die trying. I wish I could say the same for some recent major studio efforts.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shark Attack Summer: BAIT (2012)

If you remember the big spread we did on the 3D movies of the '70s and '80s back in the Summer of 2010, you'll remember us doing a lot of bitching about the studios inept handling of the format in general. Here we are a few decades later and not much has changed. The studios are still more than happy to kill the golden goose by taking something that has proven profitable and figuring out how to turn it into a cheap, unpleasant experience. No, I'm not referring to Nicolas Cage, but post-conversion. Well, maybe both. Who in their right mind would want to see Nicholas Cage in 3D? Honestly?

Just like I am a sucker for 3D movies, I am a real sucker for movies about horrible things that lurk in the water. You know; piranhas, sharks, Ed Harris... The one thing that you would think would be a natural for a 3D boom would be a killer shark flick. This was tried back in 1983 with the massive clusterfuck that was JAWS 3D. In 2010 we got the juvinile mess that was PIRANHA 3D, except that it was simply a cheap 2D conversion, so the fish that vomit-burps the severed penis that was supposed to float in your face, stays well out of reach. I guess it's a good thing that the 3D was crap after all. The following year Hollywood's brilliant minds decided that since PIRANHA 3D's over-the-top blood, boobs and bullshit combo worked so well, why not make a 3D shark movie and... it'll be rated PG-13! I guess they figured they needed a water-based 3D horror flick that PIRANHA's writers would be able to get in to, and SHARK NIGHT 3D (2011) was born. In 2012 it took the mind of the prodigal Aussie son, Russell Mulcahey, to take a stab at a straight-up shark-horror flick in 3D. He didn't just make it happen, but he made it a damn good time and a fantastic 3D experience.

Set in the beach town of Coolangatta (the southernmost point of Australia's Gold Coast), an ex-lifeguard, Josh (Xavier Samuel) finds himself working in an oppressive grocery store several months after a great white shark chewed-up his co-worker, friend and would be brother-in-law, Rory (Richard Brancatisano). While dealing with his remorse on the job, a nice tough-guy, Doyle (Julian McMahon), who is paying off a debt to a scumbag criminal (Dan Wyllie) is robbing the store. At the same time a police detective, Todd (Martin Sacks), arrives at the store to pick up his delinquent, shop-lifting daughter, Jaimie (Phoebe Tonkin), who got her nerd boyfriend, Kyle (Lincoln Lewis) fired. And our lattice of coincidence is further stretched to the breaking point when Tina (Sharni Vinson), Rory's sister and Josh's ex-fiancee shows up with her new Asian boyfriend (Qi Yuwu). Oh, and there's also a security guard (Damien Garvey), an asshole manager (Adrian Pang), a store employee (Alice Parkinson), a couple of preppies (Lincoln Lewis and Cariba Heine) and their Pomeranian Bulli (Gypsy). Phew! Got all that? If there is one thing this movie does not lack, it's shark fodder.

Once the characters converge, the tension ramps up resulting in the cop in a stand-off with the robbers. As luck would have it, at this very moment a giant tsunami descends on the town and smashes into the store, sealing the exits and leaving the store and the sub-level parking garage half flooded with seawater... Seawater and the things that live in it. The survivors clamber on top of the supermarkets isles, but it doesn't take too long for our mismatched group in the market, and those stuck in the parking garage below to realize that there is something in the water, and it's hungry. Yes, it is essentially an interesting reworking of the CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) type of horror film in which a group of dissimilar people are forced to stay inside of building with death lurking around every dark corner.

A nice, atmospheric shot in 2D, an amazing shot in 3D

It's been a long time since JAWS (1975) tore up theaters, but you'd never know it judging by the truckloads of killer shark movies that have been made in the last decade alone. Granted most of them have been made for cable, but the thing is though, very few of those movies actually have the self-confidence to take the subject matter seriously. Burgeoning filmmaker? Plagued with self doubt? Make something overtly obnoxious and idiotic, then play it off as ironic postmodern filmmaking! Genius! Instead of the usual one-liners, jokey deaths and obnoxiously overbearing comic caricatures, BAIT is played completely straight. The only really throw-away comic gag is in the beginning when the tsunami is lathering up a head of steam and an overjoyed surfer runs toward it while everyone else is fleeing in terror. This straight-faced approach combined with the interesting conceit of being trapped in a small half-flooded building with something that wants to eat you under the water makes for an effective twist on the genre, blending a lot of familiar elements into something surprisingly entertaining.

Producer and co-writer Russell Mulcahey, sets up his popcorn horror film like a tween-appeal Irwin Allen disaster epic. Loaded with well-known Aussie actors, everyone is given a brief character set-up, that unlike Hollywood counterparts is delivered in quick bites in the first half hour of the film. Instead of dragging the film down into a mire of flashbacks and pointless back-stories these scenes give you just enough information to set up your expectations for who will survive and what will be left of them, much like the slasher movie of old. Again, it may not be new, but it certainly feels fresh in a year filled with numbingly unfun quasi-horror movies like RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION (2012). Also, it's clear that director Kimble Rendall was aided by Russell Mulcahey's prodigious talents (if poorly utilized as of late). Not only is the film atmospheric with excellent use of smoke and visual debris but this film is far and away a damn sight better than Rendall's cloddish first film, CUT (2000) which was an attempt to both cash in on the success of SCREAM (1996) and revitalize Molly Ringwold's career. It did neither and it didn't do them very, very badly.

Another shot that is great in 2D, but is extremely effective in 3D

Effective use of 3D automatically gets an extra star out of me in our non-existent rating system. There's been a lot of talk about "immersive" 3D vs. "pop-out" 3D. Much of it coming from pretentious Hollywood types who point their noses in the air and proclaim anything coming out of the screen to be "low-brow". Personally, I look for both, particularly in a horror film. The immersion factor can make tension and scares exceptionally effective, but blending atmosphere with outright shocks for an experience that goes well beyond the realm of 2D cinematography is the ideal. While the 2D version of BAIT may be entertaining, the 3D version sets a benchmark for modern 3D genre films. Every shot has an amazing amount of depth and rich visual detail. From flashlights cutting through smoke, to blood billowing in the water, the sense of depth completely sucks you in. In the best of 3D traditions, not only does the 3D provide and extra element of immersion, but delivers some thrill-ride shocks as well. One of my favorite scenes that makes this point is the one where the preppie couple are sitting in their car, submerged under water. As they start to realize that there might be something else in the water, you see the shark swim past the back window of the car. It may not sound like much, but trust me, with the additional depth it is really effective. If you're looking for pop-out effects, we've got you covered here too. Sharks, body parts, knives, guns, sunglasses, water and little fishies all invade your living room so convincingly that I found myself frequently bobbing and weaving like a gone-to-seed boxer while sitting on my sofa. Anchor Bay, a company that has justifiably caught a lot of flack over a myriad of screw-ups in past years, should be commended for doing something that everyone else is too lazy to do. Release an outstanding 3D title in 3D and 2D on the same disc (with a 2D DVD version) for the shockingly reasonable SRP of $29.99, which in real world prices ends up being under $20 (Amazon's price is $13.94!). In a world dominated by 2D releases of 3D foreign films and $40-$60 releases of Hollywood's awful 2D conversions, it's exciting to see someone doing it right.

To be fair, the movie has a few downsides. While the blending of real, prosthetic and CGI shark effects are fairly seamless for the most part, there are some rather iffy CG moments. The tsunami sequence and the big shot of the destroyed town at the end do come off a bit like something from The Asylum, and that's not good. Speaking of the ending; it is a bit anti-climactic and a bit too pat. The people who are obviously being set up to die, conveniently die, the ones you think will live, they do. Also, the plasticine-looking McMahon is completely lifeless and unconvincing in his "bad boy" role. McMahon may have heaps of fans from "Nip / Tuck" and THE FANTASTIC FOUR films (2005 / 2009), but for the majority of the film, someone could have easily substituted a cardboard cut-out in his place and no-one would have been the wiser. So dimensionless is his performance that Stephen Hawking suffered a complete meltdown when challenged to explain it. Still for whatever missteps that are taken, there are a host of sure-footed scenes to over shadow them. I never really realized that a half-flooded parking garage could be as creepy and claustrophobic as it is here.

Almost the complete antithesis to the gobsmackingly feeble-minded PIRANHA 3D (2012), which was the cinematic equivalent of a frat-boy running naked into a crowd with "mangina" written across his ass, BAIT may tread on safe ground, but at least it does it well. Yes, I know all the hipsters dissed the film and one of the critics on the laughably pretentious film site Rotten Tomatoes accused it of not having enough character development (Really? You want another 30 minutes of backstory?), but hey, if it's so bad, why is Arclight Films producing an American remake set in a Los Angeles high-school? Yeah, chew on that one for a while.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Obscure Oddities: THE SUCKERS (1972)

One of the best things on the internet(s) is Temple of Schlock’s The Endangered List.  Over the last four and a half years, Schlock’s Chris Poggiali has painstakingly researched films that have fallen through the cracks over time and offered readers reports on 131 films as scarce as the African wild ass (thank you, Wikipedia!).  Thankfully, these films have a dedicated group of cinematic archaeologists on the hunt for them and – with nary a Belloq in sight – titles are being unearthed and saved every now and then.  2013 has been an especially good year with several titles being discovered and released to DVD.  One such title is THE SUCKERS, a T&A filled action thriller out on a double feature disc with THE LOVE GARDEN (1971) from upstart label Vinegar Syndrome.

The film opens with advertising man George Stone (Norman Fields) driving up some mountain roads along with his photographer wife Cindy (Barbara Mills) and two models, Barbara (Sandy Dempsey) and Joanne (Laurie Rose).  As George explains, they are heading to the isolated estate of Steve Vandemeer (Steve Vincent), a wealthy hunter that George used to photograph on his big game hunts in Africa years ago. After being confronted by two of Vandemeer’s armed security guards, the group makes it to his home for their secret assignment.  Also there for the affair is Jeff Baxter (Richard Smedley), another big game hunter and ex-Green Beret who is also in the dark about the group’s intended prey.  Vandemeer is mysteriously tight lipped, only saying, “The old days are finished. Only the appetite remains.”  Uh oh.  If there is one thing movies have taught me, it is not to trust wealthy white guys with appetites.

After some dinner and drinks, everyone settles down for the night before their big hunt the next day.  Naturally, that means we get extended couplings as George/Cindy, Jeff/Barbara, and Barbara/Joanne all get it on in sex scenes that seem to go on for days.  The next day finally arrives and Vandemeer escorts everyone out to the woods and then calmly explains to everyone what the audience has figured out long ago – his guests are going to be the hunted!  Yep, ol’ Vandemeer craves the world’s most dangerous game (he even says those words) and informs them that he and his two henchmen will spend the next day tracking and hunting them.  And you thought your job sucked!  Naturally, Jeff doesn’t take kindly to the idea and whips out his pistol, only to be informed the firing pins have been removed.  With little choice other than to run, the folks split up and dash into the woods with the hopes of escaping from this unhinged huntsman.

Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” has provided plenty of cinematic inspiration since its publication in 1924, starting with the official adaptation THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932).  I’m sure there has probably been at least one “wealthy person hunts humans” film every year since.  However, I doubt many have gone the sexploitation route that director Stu Segall (DRIVE IN MASSACRE) did with this film.  THE SUCKERS broke new ground by introducing nekkid folks into the mix.  (Eddie Romero and Jess Franco would up the ante over the next few years by having the hunted being nude; in fact, co-star Laurie Rose was also in Romero's THE WOMAN HUNT.)  The title THE SUCKERS is definitely a double entendre as it not only refers to the poor saps caught up in this rich man’s deranged fantasy, but also the main action during the onscreen make out sessions. Seriously, I haven’t seen this much nipple sucking since that breast feeding flash mob at McDonalds.  Now don’t get your hopes up as most of these sex scenes have all the erotic power of George “Buck” Flower giving you a lap dance.  Yes, it is one of those flicks where the participants are as unappealing as the 70s wall paper.  To make matters worse, the sex scenes seem to go on for days we don’t actually get to the hunting plot until the 51 minute mark of an 80 minute movie.  There is also a rather disturbing rape scene around the 1 hour mark (not that I’ve ever found a rape scene in any film non-disturbing).

"I'm afraid his comb over won't make it."
Please don’t misinterpret those criticisms as a pan though.  The film is definitely entertaining for most of its duration.  Segall’s style of directing is very “lock and talk” but there are some great bits of unintentional comedy.  There are a few flubbed lines/scenes and I loved that flashback to George and Cindy getting the job and previously clean shaven George sporting a mustache.  Segall covers his tracks by having Cindy tell him it tickles her and he better shave it off before their job.  Also, I love how George dismisses Cindy telling him one of the guards was ogling her by saying, “These guys are up here in the wilderness. What do you expect?” Even the abrupt end credits are just a re-showing of the opening credits.  These low budget bits are what give THE SUCKERS a lot of its charm.  

Long considered lost, the movie was given a 2K scan by Vinegar Syndrome from a found 35mm print.  Obviously aware of the market and narrow fan base, they didn’t clean up the print like they did for their unreleased Hershell Gordon Lewis films or MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS (1972).  There are some heavy scratches at points and the audio gets really rough during one portion about 15 minutes in. However, it didn’t really bother me.  In fact, I think it might have enhanced the viewing experience for me as it would have been strange to watch a sleazy 1970s T&A takeoff on “The Most Dangerous Game” in crystal clear quality.  Outside of the co-feature THE LOVE GARDEN, there aren't any extras on this disc.  I would have totally dug an audio commentary talking about the film's history and how this print was found, but beggars can't be choosers.  I’m just thankful that it was saved and transferred to a digital media so that future generations can also be disturbed by George’s comb over and his sex scene.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Shark Attack Summer: SHARK NIGHT 3D (2011)

It's amazing to think that after all of the virtual reams of digital paper that we have pounded out over the past few years on this blog, there are still scads of our favorite subgenres that we haven't even bothered talking about. It's time to mark one of those off the list.

Likely, you are like us and have seen an absurd number of horror movies. There comes a point in every Video Junkie's life where horror films cease to be really scary, and we look back fondly on the days that they were. Remember the first time you saw PHANTASM? Yeah, then you know what I mean. The exception to this sad phenomena of jadedness, at least for me, is the aquatic horror film. When I was a kid, about four or five, I almost drowned. If some random, reasonably athletic, guy hadn't been walking by as I was desperately trying to grow gills, this blog would be titled "Feast Your Eyes" and be written entirely by my colleague from the Williamsburg Colony. I hope, where ever that random, reasonably athletic man is, he appreciates this simple fact.

I'm pretty sure this experience gave me a justifiable fear of water, compounded by the, what I believe to be, completely rational fear of things that live in it. The point being, aquatic horror movies still have the power to ruin my sofa cushions. Things in the water look freaky and even the most hack filmmaker can stick a shark in the camera lens and make an audience recoil in their seats. Even rubber, toothy aquatic lifeforms can dig at that primal instinct to cut and run. For some reason that no psychologist can really adequately explain, this means fun! So where did this movie go so terribly wrong?

Directed by veteran stuntman and former Disney child actor, David R. Ellis, the movie takes it's first misstep with the opening credits. Grainy, monochrome red and black stock footage of sharks in 2D with 3D titles. It's got to get better than this, right? Eh, no. The opening hook has a couple of over-aged kids frolicking in the water with the requisite goofing off (and underwater 3D shot of bikini-clad bootay), leading to one of them being mauled by a shark off screen. Sort of like the opening of JAWS (1975), except without the nudity, the score, the cinematography, the atmosphere, the acting or the tension. Other than that, just like it.

Cut to random institute of allegedly higher learning where we meet our presumed shark-fodder: An African-American jock, Malik (Sinqua Walls) who got a B+ on some exam, so to celebrate he's taking his uber-nerd buddy Nick (Dustin Milligan), uber-douche hipster guy (Joel David Moore, who else?), and a couple of girls with barely any backstory (one is a "bad" girl because she is getting a back tat while on her cell phone), to Sara's house for a weekend rager. Unfortunately Sara (Sara Paxton) is from the Louisiana bayou and her house is in the middle of BFE swampland (well, actually the upscale Cross Lake in Shreveport, but who's gonna know?). You know what that means. Shit gonna go down! Oh, sorry, it's a PG-13 movie, so uhhhh.. Stuff gonna go down!

One long, undercranked pop-music filled road montage later, the group meets up with a couple of local hicks while buying likker at a bait shop. Since they are edgee-cayted city folk, this can only go in one direction. Down. One of the hicks, Dennis (Chris Carmack), has a nasty scar on his face from a boating accident and apparently has some history with Sara. Obviously this will not figure into the plot in any way after this moment. Nope, not at all. The other yokel is Red (Joshua Leonard), who has his teeth filed to a point like a... well, shark. In addion to his fetching looks, he is quite the charmer and calls Malek "boy". Yeah, nothing suspicious there, cue next undercranked pop-music montage!

After a boat race with the local Sheriff (who listens to RATT, pounds beers and acts the fool), our ethnically diverse ensemble goes out for a bit of water-skiing. Just like JAWS 2, except for the... oh, never mind. Anyway, while Malik's stunt double busts some moves on the water, a full half an hour into the movie... something attacks him. Next thing you know, Malik is missing an arm and the kids realize they are trapped in the middle of the bayou with no phone (Sara's po' cajun folk have no phone... just a multi-million dollar house and a $50K speedboat), no cellphone reception and no boat because the shark rammed the engine until it burst into flames causing it to veer off course and run into the gas pump on the dock. This is not before the unseen shark manages to chomp down (off camera) on Malik's latina girlfriend (Alyssa Diaz). That's right, in 2012 we are still dispatching the ethnic characters first. Actually, that doesn't even hold a candle to the scene in which the filmmakers without a hint of irony have our one-armed black man swearing vengeance while shaking a spear. This is 2012, isn't it? Damn, I can't imagine why they didn't work a Popeye's product placement in there as well.

If you want to watch the movie spoiler free, skip this paragraph... Ok, ready? As it turns out, the hicks that the kids met while they were buying Red Bull and vodka (peeps still be drinkin' that?), are bad men (big spoiler there) who have infested the waters with sharks (major spoiler coming) outfitted with cameras so that they can make snuff films which they watch on their laptops and cell phones! I'm going to pause for a minute to let that sink in. Really, I'm not making this up. See, they are actually big shark fans and since Shark Week on the Discovery channel is so popular, they reckon there has to be a market for people that want something "edgier" (yes, they actually use that word).

If nothing else, first time feature writers, Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg know their cliches and aren't afraid to hit them with a 20lb sledge. They are very careful to only borrow the lame parts of established classics. For instance we have just the lame ethnically diverse cast, seemingly from a FRIDAY THE 13th movie, but none of the creative elements, atmosphere, gore or nudity. They add a dog to the mix early on so that when the villains are mean to it, we know they are bad, bad men. Never mind that they are throwing people into shark infested waters, that poor dog! They hit the cliches, but they can't even exploit the three simple ideas presented by the film's title. There are barely any sharks, it takes place almost entirely during the day and it's mostly in 2D! Talk about half-assing your concept.

In addition to the ludicrous plot (that is completely non-existent until the last 20 minutes of the film), what little shark action there is, tends to be of the stick-the-camera-in-the-face-of-a-real-shark-in-a-tank or badly animated Sy-Fy style sharks flying out of the water to grab people off jetskis. If that wasn't bad enough, the 3D is almost nowhere to be found, which is odd since it was shot in stereoscopic 3D, not converted in post. Ellis' previous film (ballyhooed on the poster, no less) was THE FINAL DESTINATION (2009) which set the standard for jaw-droppingly creative 3D horror effects. Of course in what is becoming typical cheap-assedness here in the US, the movie was released blu-ray in 2D only (Japan, UK, Spain, etc all have 3D releases). In the end, the movie just doesn't seem to give a crap, right down to multiple inconsistencies, including a scene in which a jerry can of gas is knocked over in a little bare-wood boathouse. A lighter hits it, the flames go up and engulf a character. That character falls in the water and we can clearly see, in an extended shot of the interior of the boathouse, that there isn't a single flame to be found! I guess the wood was too humid to burn, or the fire simply crawled up off the floor onto the character. I'm sure, that's it.

The first half hour desperately wants to be PIRANHA 3D with a PG-13 rating. This means we get the crassest dialogue that money can buy, but yet could still be printed in a family newspaper, plus several scenes of hot chicks getting topless with their backs to the camera or underwater with the camera firmly above water. This actually gets pretty funny watching the filmmakers dancing on the head of a pin. They are desperately trying to be wild, but only able to be mild. Matter of fact, it feels more restrained than a Sy-Fy outing, in as that there is nothing more offensive than bare man-ass. This is shown as one of the girls is seen taking a life-model art class. Equal time with some of the chicas? Nope, can't have that. Didn't JAWS (1975) have nudity in a PG rated film? Oh yeah, that was Spielberg. Sorry, I forgot how the rating system works. Of course my frivolous complaints about neutered "edgy" content aside, this movie still has absolutely nothing going for it, and honestly I wasn't being too demanding.